Dirty Oil

As well as improving the efficiency of vehicles, the world needs to reduce the emissions from the production of transport fuels, including those from the dirtiest sources like tar sands and coal-to-liquid.

What's happening

Article 7a of the EU's 2009 Fuel Quality Directive obliges fuel suppliers to reduce the lifecycle greenhouse gas ‘intensity’ of transport fuel by 6% by 2020 compared with 2010. The 6% reduction can be achieved through the use of biofuels, renewable electricity and a reduction in the flaring and venting of gases at the extraction stage of fossil fuel feedstocks (upstream emissions reductions). According to the directive, from 2011, suppliers were also to report to authorities designated by member states on the greenhouse gas intensity of the fuel they supply. However, implementation of such reporting has been delayed for several years.

In 2011, the European Commission released an ambitious proposal to implement the FQD target. The Canadian government and oil companies lobbied furiously against it because very carbon-intensive products such as fuel produced from Canadian tar sands would have been obliged to clean up or be unwelcome on the EU market. As member states’ experts did not manage to find an agreement on the proposal, the European Commission ordered a full assessment on the impacts of the detailed rules.

After many years of delay, the Commission finally released a weakened proposal in October 2014, which was then formally approved by the European Parliament and the Council. This new proposal does not prevent the use of tar sands in Europe. Read our briefing on the final rules, study our recommendations on upstream emissions reductions (UERs), and discover how trade deals with the US and Canada have been used to undermine the FQD.

Dirty oil to Europe

It is difficult to estimate how much tar sands oil comes to Europe at the moment. June 2014 saw the first shipment of tar sands crude to reach Europe and several shipments followed after this. Not all refineries can handle tar sands crudes. This map of EU refineries highlights which EU refineries would be the most likely to receive tar sands crude. In addition, tar sands crude is already being used by US refineries, notably in the Gulf of Mexico, from where refined products, such as diesel, are being shipped to Europe. However, since there is currently no tracking and transparency on the type of crude oil used in the petroleum products that Europe imports, it is very difficult to have a clear idea of how much tar sands enters Europe overall.

The likelihood of tar sands exports to Europe is also dependent on the infrastructure being in place in North America to transport the tar sands crudes to the coasts for exports. In Canada, the Energy East pipeline project, which would have transported tar sands oil from Alberta to the east coast of Canada for export, was cancelled in 2017. In the US, the situation is quite concerning. In 2015, then president Barack Obama decided not to approve the pipeline Keystone XL that would have brought tar sands crude from landlocked Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. But in March 2017, president Donald Trump reversed the decision. The project stills faces many hurdles, including several legal challenges. Read more information here.

Key statistics

EU transport emissions (2016)

Transport has become the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Europe.



The Fuel Quality Directive (FQD)

The FQD requires fuel suppliers to decrease by 6% the carbon intensity of transport fuels by 2020. It achieves this by assigning different carbon values to different fuels based on their carbon intensity from extraction to end use (well to wheel).

CO2 savings from the FQD’s 6% target

50-60 million tonnes of CO2.

Are tar sands more carbon intensive than regular oil?

Tar sands have greenhouse gas emissions up to 49% higher than conventional crude oil. The official Commission study concludes that tar sands are on average 23% worse than conventional crude. Read a ‘reality check’ on tar sands.


Tar Sands: Canada's First Nation Communities Are Paying the Price

Dr. John O’Connor, a family physician in northern Alberta, is fighting to help the local First Nations battle the adverse health impacts of living in the shadow of the world’s dirtiest oil fields. Find out about the risks his patients face and the government’s reaction.